Playing Dumb

Method madness: The naked truths of The Idiots

Before they learn that it isn't nice to "make fun" of the differently abled, kids who aren't mentally handicapped sometimes like to pretend that they are. For better or worse, Jim Carrey and Lars von Trier are a pair of grownups who haven't yet learned to repress that childish urge. Indeed, von Trier's The Idiots and the Carrey vehicle Me, Myself & Irene are blatantly incorrect odes to the cathartic virtues of acting the fool. That one of these was a cause célèbre at Cannes two years ago while the other is a current summer blockbuster testifies to the split personality of the juvenile-movie sandbox: The Idiots is a highbrow art film that impishly repudiates its own importance, whereas Me, Myself & Irene is a lowbrow farce with intimations of profundity. Both, however, are hilarious, and, to the degree that they resist easy classification, they're subversive as well.

In The Idiots, a group of beautiful young nomads wander Copenhagen attempting to impersonate retarded people--drooling, disrobing, and generally "spazzing about"--as a means of raw self-expression and subcultural deviance. So--brilliant provocation or sick joke? Depends, perhaps, on whether we're talking about the idiots or The Idiots. On the one hand, it isn't von Trier who's doing the "spazzing"--he's just making a movie about it. On the other, the transgression is clearly his, since playing "dumb" is the director's audacious allegory of social nonconformity, and The Idiots his outrageous example of same.

In any case, none of this is terribly new. If the movie's "idiot" commune seems to follow in the Sixties tradition of waving one's freak flag high, The Idiots is unmistakably the work of the man who made Breaking the Waves--the same mix of disorienting jump cuts, fly-on-the-wall camerawork, and washed-out colors used to capture the familiar story of "susceptible" people fighting the powers that be. The most fragile of all in the new film is Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), a meek loner who reluctantly becomes a member of the idiots after watching them embarrass and horrify their "normal" guides during a field-trip tour of an insulation plant. As with radical social groups of yore, free love eventually destroys the clique's solidarity from within, while the newcomer Karen--as much a lost little lamb as Emily Watson's Bess in Waves--naturally has the hardest time letting go of her inner idiot.

For now, never mind the movie's pornographic orgy scene: The Idiots is a hotbed of what cinema studies majors would call "intertextuality." Not only is this early work from von Trier's notorious "verité" collective alternately known as "Dogme #2" (after The Celebration), but the filmmaker has described Karen as the middle heroine of a "Golden Heart trilogy" recently completed by his non-Dogme musical Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk plays a vision-impaired martyr. (Next he'll tell us that Dancer is the first in a series of digital-video musicals, each based on one of the seven wonders of the world.) No idiot himself, this director is an expert embroiderer of new-wave film history, shameless self-promotion, and his own increasingly insular oeuvre. These days, anyone with a homemade wedding video and a thousand or so bucks can buy a Dogme certificate from von Trier's Web site (, while Dark suggests that the provocateur is now content to recycle his most easily marketable obsessions and dump the rest.

Conversely, when he shot The Idiots in 1997, von Trier was inspired to inaugurate an entire movement based on his notion of aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional "simplicity"--a dogma that, ironically, ended up disproving its own simple theory: Give any idiot a digital video camera and he'll give you a masterpiece.



Von Trier fans determined to reclaim The Idiots from political incorrectness would do well to note that its characters' shenanigans are no more egregious than those of any millionaire comedian given to public displays of infantilism. What's different is the context: Method "spazzing" at, say, Aquavit (or Lagoon Cinema) seems beyond the pale, but most of us would gladly pay to sit in a multiplex watching Jim Carrey freak out and foam at the mouth--that's entertainment. (The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, protesting the Carrey movie's farcical misdiagnosis of schizophrenia, has begged to differ.)

Like von Trier's film, Me, Myself & Irene dares to argue the therapeutic value of acting "crazy": Carrey plays Charlie, a Rhode Island motorcycle cop of near-Minnesotan niceness (he even says "You betcha!") who, after 18 years of repressing his rage at being cuckolded by a little person of color, periodically erupts into Hank, a womanizing prankster so vicious as to make Buddy Love look like an angel. Von Trier would appreciate the thick weave of allusions here: As the comically "schizy" Carrey is wont to channel both sides of Jerry Lewis, this gutbusting Farrelly Brothers freak show is the pair's own Nutty Professor, right down to its sense of the psychic compatibility of humor and horror, each springing uncontrollably from the id. And, as the wild Hank is an improv menace created by Charlie to deal with his problems, Me, Myself & Irene really does constitute a philosophy--of comedy in general and the Farrellys' in particular. After all, what is There's Something About Mary if not a textbook example of Charlie's "advanced delusionary schizophrenia with involuntary narcissistic rage"?

Granted, perhaps no movie that creates a match cut between shit and chocolate soft-serve should be taken too seriously. But it needs to be said that these Farrellys aren't just gross-out kingpins but auteurs, their oddly tender theme being that only unconditional love can cure 20-odd years of sexual humiliation. Just as familiar, there's something about the brothers' latest heroine (Renée Zellweger) that seems to bring out the worst in men. But why, in turn, would this beauty find herself drawn to a dumb-and-dumber beast like Hank? Well, let's put it this way: If Zellweger's Irene can be viewed as a stand-in for Carrey's captive audience, the movie is also about our irrepressible lust for the "bad object"--that is, Me, Myself & Irene. Indeed, able-minded kids of all ages know that drooling at the dinner table can be an act of defiance.


The Idiots starts Friday at U Film Society; Me, Myself & Irene is playing at area theaters.

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